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Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power

Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power by William F. Trimble. Naval Institute Press, 2019, 416 pp.   

John S. McCain has been a household name for the better part of a century. Though the contemporary reader will most readily recall the late US senator and naval aviator, John S. McCain III, William Trimble reminds us of a rich lineage begun two generations earlier. In his biographical and historical study, Admiral John S. McCain and the Triumph of Naval Air Power, Dr. Trimble examines the last decade of Adm John S. McCain Sr.’s career with a piercing focus on his contributions to the development of naval aviation, culminating in his service as a carrier task force commander in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Although McCain was often pilloried as a “Johnny-come-lately” by early naval aviation proponents, Dr. Trimble, the professor emeritus of History at Auburn University and author of several books on the history of naval aviation, makes a compelling case that McCain was far ahead of his contemporaries regarding the development of naval airpower as a strategic strike force.  

Admiral John S. McCain is rich in historical depth and benefits from the author’s meticulous study of archival data and personal documents. As a result, Dr. Trimble is able to draw a clear path from McCain’s initial decision to pursue an aeronautical rating late in his career to his emergence as a leader in the naval aviation community. Through a chronological approach that traces McCain’s assignments as he oscillates between command at sea and important administrative positions in the Navy’s personnel and aeronautics departments, Dr. Trimble successfully portrays McCain as a defender of naval aviation from the pressures of a Navy bureaucracy intent on limiting aviation’s prominence and an Army Air Force determined to consolidate all military aviation under its purview.  

Without bias, McCain is depicted as an imperfect operational commander who seemingly struggled to make time-critical decisions on occasion but was nonetheless an effective and capable fighter. As an administrator, he took the lessons learned in both sea trials and warfare back to the Department of the Navy and the Congress and became an effective advocate for increased command responsibility for the oft-maligned aviation career field. Perhaps more importantly, McCain’s fierce advocacy for increases in manpower and materiel ensured that those who assumed command after him enjoyed the advantages of an effectively manned and supplied force, which he frequently was forced to fight without. 

McCain’s lasting impression, as argued by Dr. Trimble, resulted from his advocacy as a carrier task force commander for the free movement of carrier groups. Instead of utilizing carriers merely as tactical instruments anchored off coasts in support of naval bombardments and marine landings, McCain proved their power as roving airfields capable of inflicting punishment against unsuspecting enemies. His tactics against the Japanese navy in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and against the Japanese mainland proved that naval aviation could provide strategic leverage and reach beyond that of the land-based air forces of the time. This, it seems, is the great and lasting contribution of Admiral McCain to the Navy and to the history of aviation in general.  

The prominence of the carrier strike group as both a symbol and manifestation of the projection of American military might bears witness to the foresight and efforts of Admiral McCain. At a time when the future of the carrier is in question, we cannot help but acknowledge the influence and successes of naval aviation during the last 70 years—successes made possible by the bureaucratic and operational leadership of men and women like Admiral McCain. Perhaps the singular weakness of Dr. Trimble’s book is the absence of the poetry and feeling of familiarity with the subject that a reader seeks from biography. Upon completion, the reader has a sense of Admiral McCain the officer but less so the man. That impression is somewhat alleviated in the closing chapter, which presents some reflections of friends and family shortly after McCain’s death. Whatever its flaws as a biography, however, Dr. Trimble’s book will serve as a rich reward for the serious scholar of aviation history and any reader in search of a greater understanding of naval aviation’s important contributions to Allied victory in the Pacific. 

Capt Kevin M. Beauchemin, USAF 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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